Image reading and context

Every photograph is an act amid a complex structure of choices. These choices, which extend beyond the time of the photograph, influence the photograph before, during, and after its instant. Reading photographs in context is a participation in this complex,” (David Levi Strauss 2005, p 33).

Although we have faith in the assumed ‘reality’ of photographs because of their scientific origins (the products of optics and chemistry), Andy Grundberg contends that it is their meanings that are up for grabs, since these are determined “not so much by the camera as by the human being behind the machine and by the contexts in which the resulting images are seen” (1990, n.p.).

Mitchell (1994) explains that whether an image is perceived as plausible or not depends on the viewer’s cultural background and political savvy (whether questioning authority is encouraged or even permitted in society), and what may serve as compelling evidence to one viewer may be understood as misinforming propaganda by another: “plausibility is relative to an ideological framework and an existing knowledge structure” (1994, p 37). Curtis also recognises the importance of the photographer understanding how an image would be perceived by the target audience:

Documentarians from Mathew Brady to Dorothea Lange succeeded because they understood the desires of their audience and did not shy from molding their images accordingly. Far from being passive observers of the contemporary scene, documentary photographers were active agents searching for the most effective way to communicate their views” (2003, p 5).

That the most effective way of communicating those views might involve staging events, moving objects, combining negatives or airbrushing prints is taken up by Huang (1999), who cites examples of such manipulation techniques from the eminent list of FSA photographers including Rothstein, Lange, Evans, Post Wolcott, Elisofan, Delano and Vachon. What Huang sees as most ironic is the fact that many of these same photographers claimed objectivity and expounded the ‘hands off’ principle, quoting the much maligned Rothstein as stating that in documentary photographs reality in front of the lens is “recorded objectively” and “without artificial manipulation” (1999, p 10). While as Hewitson points out, although “manipulation of subjects was considered acceptable in documentary photography, as long as the information conveyed by the final image was true” (2004, p 55), the photographers and editors were not producing or selecting photographs based on notions of objectivity, but those that accorded with the Administration’s views on agricultural mismanagement. The skull images that the author is discussing are illustrative of the problems associated with documentary photography, since they were used to corroborate a multitude of at times conflicting narratives (“stories of ecological devastation, government conspiracy, political turpitude, and finally bureaucratic ineptitude and misunderstood artistic experimentation” (ibid, p 55)), and as such Hewitson concludes:

That these photographs could accommodate so many competing narratives, however, exemplifies the problematic nature of documentary photography in general: a photograph is given meaning by the master narrative in which it is included, but as this narrative is challenged, revised and augmented the meaning of the photograph is as well” (ibid, p 56).

The photograph takes on a whole new meaning according to the narrative in which it is included or given currency, as Barthes (1977) observed, the photograph is usually at the centre of “a complex of concurrent messages… and surrounds constituted by the text, the title, the caption, the lay-out and, in a more abstract but no less ‘informative’ way, by the very name of the paper” all of which serve to lend the image a cultural significance, while the photographic image becomes “not simply a product or a channel but also an object endowed with a structural autonomy” (1977, p 15).

As Howard Becker (1995) points out, photographs are cultural artefacts and thus derive their meanings from the contexts in which they are presented and read:

Their meaning arises in the organizations they are used in, out of the joint action of all the people involved in those organizations, and so varies from time to time and place to place. …photographs get their meaning from the way the people involved with them understand them, use them, and thereby attribute meaning to them” (1995, p 5).

Victor Burgin also noted that a photograph cannot simply be reduced to a window on the world, but should be treated as a semiotic text:

A fact of primary social importance is that the photograph is a place of work, a structured and structuring space within which the reader deploys, and is deployed by, what codes he or she is familiar with in order to make sense. Photography is one signifying system among others in society which produces the ideological subject in the same movement in which they ‘communicate’ their ostensible ‘contents’” (1982, p 153).

Sontag also notes that “The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it” (2003, p 39). While Barthes observed that due to cultural connotations, the reading or interpretation of photographic images is “always historical” and depends on “a certain knowledge on the reader’s part or… the reader’s cultural situation” (1977, p 28).

Elsewhere, John Berger draws attention to the fact that despite a photograph’s apparent objectivity, the resulting image remains the result of human intervention, a “human choice being exercised in a given situation” a decision to show one particular thing over all the other possibilities, and as such a photograph is “already a message about the event it records” (Berger 1968, p 292). He then issues his famous warning:

Every photograph is in fact a means of testing, confirming and constructing a total view of reality. Hence the crucial role of photography in ideological struggle. Hence the necessity of our understanding a weapon which we can use and which can be used against us,” (ibid, p 294).

Mika Hannula discusses the fact that an image always tends to be more or less than the reality it represents: “It never breaks even, but always comes over as too short or too overdetermined” (2004, p 17). When analysing truth claims, one needs to consider the context of production of the original message (who produced it, where, when and to what ends), as well as the variance between what a particular message is believed to convey, and what it in fact communicates under certain conditions. Hannula advocates applying Grierson’s famous definition of documentary as the “creative treatment of actuality.” As Gross et al suggest:

it will be appropriate to regard the final product as a story we are being told by the film-makers, based to an indeterminate degree upon the “reality” of the participants’ dispositions, motivations, and circumstances. However unobtrusive and sincere the film-makers might be in their attempt to capture the way things were, we are faced with a narrative constructed within the conventions of dramatic realism” (1988, p 23).

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